POLICYMIC 06/10/14
By Tom McKay

The news: As the United States concludes its messy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is finding itself left with vast armories of powerful military hardware designed for the streets of Baghdad and Kabul. In order to avoid sending billions of dollars of equipment to the scrap yards, the military is taking equipment designed to survive direct hits from IEDs and distributing it to small-town police departments across the country.

Police departments are getting tens of thousands of light machine guns and automatic rifles, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicles, camouflage and night-vision gear, ammunition, silencers and even aircrafts. And while departments welcome the new equipment, their prevalent use in middle America might be somewhat alarming. Highly-equipped SWAT teams are being called with alarming frequency, even for routine tasks that were formerly handled by regular uniformed officers.

The New York Times reports:

“The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs. Masked, heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclub in 2006 as part of a liquor inspection. In Florida in 2010, officers in SWAT gear and with guns drawn carried out raids on barbershops that mostly led only to charges of ‘barbering without a license.'”

The background: Some police chiefs cite valid reasons for the equipment, including radically different tactics during what the FBI calls “Active Shooter/Mass Casualty Incidents.” Previously, police would set up a perimeter and attempt to negotiate with mass shooters. But because the modern generation of mass shooters have been proven to show little interest having specific demands new, the preferred tactic to save lives is now to march in, guns blazing.

Not everyone is happy about the sudden influx of high-tech great. Neenah, Wisconsin city councilman William Pollnow Jr., who opposed his town’s acquisition of an armored truck, told the New York Times: “Somebody has to be the first person to say ‘Why are we doing this?’ [The answer is always protecting police officers.] Who’s going to be against that? You’re against the police coming home safe at night? But you can always present a worst-case scenario. You can use that as a framework to get anything.”

Pollnow has a point. Nationwide, violent crime is at its lowest point in a generation, and domestic terrorist attacks are actually lower than they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

Meanwhile, a lot of the new hardware is seemingly being distributed because it’s available, powerful and intimidating and not because it’s necessarily critical or effective at safely policing the streets of American cities and towns. Rome City, Ind., population 1,369, received equipment it didn’t need or understand, including what appeared to be a gunfire simulator designed for tank gunners that could load real explosives. And as PolicyMic reported in November on MRAPs, “The trucks weigh 18 tons, get five miles to the gallon, crash through weak bridges and shatter some roads, and have a tendency to tip over — so much so that the military conducts special classes to train soldiers for a rollover situation.”

Why you should care: Michael Shank and Elizabeth Beavers at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) argue that “militarizing” America could have dangerous consequences, including lowered civil liberties through intimidation, irresponsible use of excessive force and the potential to lose powerful tools of war in the middle of the country. The FCNL wrote that “Citizens deserve to know that their congressional leaders and law enforcement officers are working together to protect them — not recklessly engaging in a gluttonous arms race or irresponsibly losing dangerous weapons.”

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and FCNL’s Michael Shank wrote that “Americans should … be concerned, unless they want their main streets patrolled in ways that mirror a war zone. We recognize that we’re not in Kansas anymore, but are MRAPs really needed in small-town America?”

Expert Peter Kraska, who wrote “Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing,” told IndyStar, “The problem with that is, it’s a real slippery slope and it can become unreasonable. A traffic stop is extremely dangerous for the police. In a democratic society, though, we wouldn’t want to see those traffic stops or even 25% of those traffic stops handled by a SWAT team.

“If what you mean by being cautious (to protect officers) is increasingly militarize, that doesn’t necessarily result in safe outcomes,” says Kraska. “In fact, it can escalate risky situations instead of deescalate them.”